By JERI CLAUSING
Since his first House campaign a dozen years ago, would-be Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake has worked diligently to cast himself as a conservative gadfly, willing to buck GOP leaders and even a Republican president.
But as a result of the six-term congressman's work as a lobbyist two decades ago for a Namibian uranium operation with ties to Iran, a GOP primary opponent and Democrats are portraying him as a Washington insider who should not get to succeed retiring Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz.
Well before Flake was a leader in the campaign to eliminate the pet projects and grants that lawmakers add to spending bills, he was a registered foreign agent who represented Namibia and a uranium mine in the southern African nation that gained independence in 1990. Flake has since received $100,000 in contributions from mining interests and voted a number of times against penalties on Iran.
In Washington's revolving-door climate, it's not unusual for lawmakers and lobbyists to switch back and forth.
Rep. Jason Altmire, D-Pa., for example, began his political career as a congressional aide, then lobbied on behalf of hospitals for a decade before winning election to the House in 2006. Several lawmakers have worked as lobbyists between service in Congress, including Sens. John Thune, R-S.D., and Dan Coats, R-Ind., and Rep. Dan Lungren, R-Calif.
Flake says his lobbying past has never been a secret and that it was tied to his "love affair" with southern Africa, where as a young Mormon he did missionary work. He says his focus was on helping the transitional government of Namibia emerge as a democracy and develop its economy.
He says it's ridiculous to imply that his work representing Rossing Uranium, which was majority-owned by the global mining conglomerate Rio Tinto Zinc of London, played any role in his votes on Iran. He says it was only last year that he learned that the Iranian government also had a stake in the mine.
But his past has become an issue in his bid to replace Kyl, a race that could influence the presidential vote in Arizona and help determine which party controls the Senate in 2013.
Arizona has one of five Republican-held seats targeted by Democrats as takeover possibilities in November; the others are Indiana, Nevada, Maine and Massachusetts. In Arizona, Democrats are counting on Richard Carmona, surgeon general under President George W. Bush.
Democrats say Carmona, who accused the Bush administration of trying to politicize his job as the nation's top public health official, could contribute to making the traditionally Republican state competitive as President Barack Obama seeks a second term.
The last Democratic senator in Arizona was Dennis DeConcini, who left office in 1995.
According to Flake and federal records, the future congressman came to Washington as a public affairs executive with the firm of Shipley, Smoak & Henry, where he first represented Namibia.
He soon moved to Namibia as executive director of the Foundation for Democracy, a group established to draft Namibia's constitution. Flake's campaign says he worked for the foundation from April 1989 to 1990.
In 1992, Flake returned to Arizona, where he headed the Goldwater Institute, a think tank, until he was elected in 2000.
But after leaving Shipley, Smoak & Henry, Flake also owned and operated Interface Public Affairs from 1990 to 1991. Flake acknowledges that he was registered foreign agent and was paid $7,000 a month for representing Rossing Uranium Limited, which was majority-owned by Rio Tinto Zinc.
He said in his 1990 foreign agent registration with the Justice Department that his job was to "introduce the corporation and its citizenship activities within Namibia to the U.S." ... and to "attempt to promote the image ... and good relations between the United States and Namibia."
Flake said his focus was on helping lift apartheid-era penalties against the country and the mine. He said he did not know until last October that Iran owned a 15 percent stake in the Rossing Uranium, an interest that he said pre-dates the Iranian revolution that deposed the shah, an ally of the West.
"I don't know how a congressman who claims to be transparent doesn't disclose this beforehand," said real estate investor Wil Cardon, Flake's opponent in the GOP primary Aug. 28. "It makes me question every vote he has taken when it comes to Iran."
Cardon added: "It's also confusing to me that Flake has taken tens of thousands of dollars from the mining industry. From a guy who was a lobbyist before going to Washington, and claiming to fight special interests, it's interesting how beholden to special interests he has become."
Since joining Congress, Flake has received at least $97,000 from mining interests, including Rio Tinto, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, which tracked donations through the 2010 election cycle.
He has backed legislation favorable to mining interests in Arizona. Last year Flake proposed ending a ban on uranium mining claims around the Grand Canyon. In 2009 he introduced a land swap bill that would enable Resolution Copper, an arm of Rio Tinto, to develop a mine in eastern Arizona.
Democrats also are making Flake's lobbying past an issue.
"Jeff Flake is the definition of a Washington D.C. insider," said Matt Canter, a spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.
"He spent years as a Washington lobbyist and a registered foreign agent, doing the bidding of special interest foreign clients, before becoming a career politician who voted to benefit his former clients and refused to tell his constituents about his conflict of interest," Cantor said.
Flake's campaign denies any conflicts and says his critics are twisting facts from a background that he's never tried to hide.
"I have mentioned it in bios, I have mentioned it in numerous speeches. So this notion that I tried to hide my past is farcical," Flake said in a recent interview.
He says his record as one of a few congressmen who have repeatedly voted against sanctions for Iran is irrelevant. He says he long has opposed all such unilateral penalties, whether against Iran, Sudan, Cuba, Myanmar or any country.
That opposition, he said, dates back to his time in Namibia, where he saw the damage that sanctions can have on innocent people.
Flake's biography: http://flake.house.gov/Biography/